Pap’s old ax is 150 years old, and during that time has only had two heads and four handles.
I was recently awarded not Pap’s old ax, but Willard B. Combs’s Pap’s old sledgehammer. By holding myself out as sort of primitive, which is sort of true, I get a lot of people’s old tools and that old thing under the porch. The path of a perfectly normal Breathitt County sledgehammer to a law office in Pikeville is a tale ever so sad and ever so true.
Sledgehammer genealogy is a new area of study, not even fake-taught by Trump University. But as far as we can tell our subject sledge traces back to Merida Combs, who was born in 1877, and hammered and farmed until his timely death in 1970. If people live to be real old in a family, the next generation misses out a lot. Just ask Prince Charles. He practiced being king longer than Mrs. Rodham Clinton practiced being president, and now watches as the seasons fly by like pinwheels and his queen gets ugly.
Back to the Combs. Because the old man lived so long, his boy Willard only got to tend to and cherish the sledgehammer until he passed himself in 2006. He did outlive tobacco farming in Breathitt County. The passing of the old tobacco culture and the passing of two generations of Breathitt County farmers had left a sledgehammer vouched safe to a gentle granddaughter, who, rather than see a once proud sledgehammer go homeless, gave it to me and I took it in.
It is a long and gangly thing. Thirty-six inches of thin handle down to a really small head, for a sledgehammer. You have to remember that different things have different heads, but trust me, I gotta tell ya, it is a small head, and a really long handle. Some old farmer, wearing longhandles, had done equations in his head and realized how little people like Joe Morgan can hit all those home runs. The farther the head is from your grip, the faster the speed of the head when it hits the rock. Small head, long reach.
I fully think that a small hammer with a long head is the very kind that Polly Anne used to drive steel like a man when John Henry took sick. His type, like farmers, are out of date. The number one killer of young workers in Kentucky is falling off ladders while changing prices at the gas station twice a day.
The small head is also scarred, like it may have near-missed a lot, or maybe came from China via a flea market. I agree with you completely. The term “near miss” is typical of modern thought. I have issues with it.
When you get something valuable, you never know what to do with it. The head is loose, but not real loose. How do you work with something whose head is loose? Do I drive something down in there and tighten it, or did they let it stay loose to absorb some of the shock of the rock fighting back? In the future I will mainly be hammering out a warning.
If I keep it. Just now I stepped on the head and it rolled and the handle came flying at me and hit me exactly 36" from the floor. That was when I realized what was really valuable–-my stomach, for years the subject of critical analysis by the woman I married 47 years ago today, but which stuck out far enough to absorb the blow before it could hit anything else. That act of sacrifice by my very own belly may have kept me from turning on a crotchety old hammer and putting it back under the porch.
Reach Larry Webster, a Pikeville attorney, at websterlawrencer@